A new condescension greets women voters


No election campaign is ever complete without talk about the gender gap, women voters, and the candidates' attempts to compete for their affections. This year, the women's vote is especially important since the election is likely to be a close one. And at least for now, women are confounding political experts by deserting the Democrats: In some recent polls, they are actually leaning in Bush's favor.

So both sides are fervently wooing women—in the process, often treating them with a condescension that, in a better world, would cause a suitor to be sent packing.

For some reason, woman-oriented politics are especially likely to give rise to silly labels, from the "soccer moms" of yesteryear to the "security moms" of today, and cringe-worthy catch phrases like the Bush campaign's "W Stands for Women." A few years ago, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway spoke of "the three 'magic M's'—marriage, mortgage, and munchkins" that move women toward conservative politics. This year, a concert/political event in New York intended to galvanize young women's vote in support of the Democrats was titled "Chicks Rock, Vaginas Vote."

In the world after Sept. 11, where terrorism is an equal threat to us all, there seems to be less of a place than ever for gender-specific "women's issues" in politics.

Republicans often stress (rightly) that national security, which is still the paramount concern on most Americans' minds today, is not a "men's issue" or a "women's issue." Yet it is still being packaged in gender-specific ways designed to appeal to women—who, conventional wisdom has it, need to relate to everything on a personal level. And so down-to-earth first lady Laura Bush urges women to vote for her husband because he is a strong-but-sensitive guy who can protect them and their children but also hug grieving families that have lost loved ones in the war.

Smartly, Republican rhetoric appeals to the traditional archetype of the strong, decisive man making the women feel safe and protected without lapsing into overly patriarchal stereotypes. Bush's entourage includes strong women like Condoleezza Rice. Laura Bush's speech at the Republican convention included references to brave women in uniform and a story about a father caring for his three children alone while his wife serves in Iraq.

Is the Republican strategy to appeal to women and their safety concerns emotionally manipulative? Sure it is. Does it avoid the tough, timely questions about whether Bush's policies in Iraq have really made it a safer world for Americans? Yes. But so far, the strategy seems to be working.

Meanwhile, many women who dislike Bush also distrust Kerry. Kerry's biggest liability is that he's seen as lacking not only the courage of his convictions, but any convictions at all. This perception is not just a right-wing caricature mindlessly picked up by the media: Witness Kerry's tortuous attempts to square his new antiwar position with his earlier support for military action in Iraq.

And to counter that, the Democrats are—doing what, exactly? Well, there was that "Vaginas Vote" event in New York (co-hosted by playwright/activist Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame), which thoroughly disgusted at least one feminist and Democrat, writer Rebecca Traister. According to Traister, Ensler told the women in the audience to "pull out that other paradigm living inside of us waiting to be born," to "step into your vaginas and get the vagina vote out." Whatever that means.

Ensler also appeared on CNN with actress/activist Jane Fonda to urge women to go out and vote. Yet Fonda managed to sound dismissive of all male (or should we say, nonvaginal?) candidates, opining that women don't vote because "none of these guys are speaking to their issues… They don't see our issues. They don't feel our issues. They're not walking in our shoes."

Fonda went on to stereotype women as caregivers who are concerned about the future because they bear the children: "The issues that women carry in their bodies are the issues of the future." Asked if women who don't vote are themselves to blame if politicians ignore their issues, she replied, "It's like blame the victim. We live in a patriarchal society where women are 'less than.' " (Did she think she was talking to women voters in Afghanistan?) Ensler chimed in with some psychobabble about how women in our culture "don't feel the right to what they know."

Women as victims. Women as body parts. To think that our suffragist foremothers spent seven decades fighting for this.